City Life: TOKYO: Pizza greets the Diet's new dawn

WHEN THE Japanese parliament held its first ever British-style Prime Minister's Question Time the other week, the excitement in Nagatacho, Tokyo's equivalent of Westminster, was palpable.

On the television news, presenters explained the background to the British system against film footage of a finger-jabbing William Hague and a sound- track of baying back-benchers. Newspapers editorialised about their hopes for a new era of accountability. Finally, the two antagonists stepped up to the podium.

On one side was the Democratic Party leader, Yukio Hatoyama, the most prominent among Japan's reformist politicians. Locking horns with him was the Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, known as "the Ox" for his unflappable stubborness. For the first time, a Japanese PM would be facing questions without prepared notes and without knowing the question in advance. What thunderbolt would Mr Hatoyama hurl? Like a gladiator in the arena, he fixed the Prime Minister in the eye and spoke.

"What did you have for breakfast this morning?" he demanded, adding. "I had pizza." Swift as a bullet train, came the answer. "A Japanese-style breakfast," retorted Mr Obuchi. "Not pizza."

For nearly half an hour, the exchange continued, a Pythonesque jumble of meaningless questions, fumbled answers and missed opportunities. Even Japanese MPs seem to agree that, so far at least, Japan's experiment with British-style debate has not been much of a success. "Compared to Westminster or the US Congress the Japanese system is very weird," says Taro Kono, a junior MP in Mr Obuchi's Liberal Democratic Party.

"Parliament is not functioning, and these changes have the potential to be important. But we're just not doing what we're supposed to be doing. Hatoyama's first question was a big disappointment."

In the 19th century, the original Imperial Diet was modelled on the Houses of Parliament and, superficially, Japanese and British democracy have plenty in common - prime ministers, cabinets, upper and lower houses. But beneath Japan's parliamentary veneer hums a very different political machine.

"It's just like the old Communist system," says Mr Kono, who lived in Poland during the Eighties. "It's very ceremonial, everyone knows the result beforehand, and the real power broking goes on deep behind the scenes. I used to tell my Polish friends that they didn't have a democracy, but these days I wonder whether we do either."

The real business of Japanese politics takes place not in Nagatacho, but in Akasaka, a neighbouring area of expensive restaurants and exclusive geisha houses.

It is here that the leaders of Japan's parties meet to hammer out policies which are smoothed out and drafted into law by bureaucrats, and rubber stamped in the Diet. "The Diet is just a ritual," says Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of politics at Hokkaido University.

For politicians who have never drafted a law or posed a parliamentary question, there is a lot of catching up to do. A former civil servant named Masao Miyamoto published a famous expose in which he recounted a conversation with a senior bureaucrat.

The man explained that politics was simply too important a business to be left to politicians. "Can you really imagine today's lawmakers entrusted with the job of lawmaking?" he asked. "It would be the end of Japan!"

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